The coming green computers.
It may be that the idea has garnered more newspaper and magazine ink than equipment sales - it's too early to tell. But President Clinton has mandated that the largest PC buyer in the world - the U.S. government - set a good example by embracing the Energy Star program. The fact that many Energy Star computers cost no more than their energy-wasting counterparts adds to their appeal.
Basically, Energy Star computing equipment is programmed to do what all energy-conscious computer users ought to do - automatically, effortlessly and more efficiently than you can do it intentionally. Steven Anzovin, author of The Green PC, a paperback bible for conscientious computing, suggests that you turn off your system - or at least your monitor, printer and desk lights, all of which use more power than does the computer - "every time you get up from your desk." Energy Star equipment saves you the hassle of flipping switches and figuring out where you were when you left. Like a screen saver that prolongs the life of idle monitors (without saving any power) by drawing on their screen flying toasters, Spyrographs, tropical fish or the sort of starfield you'd see from the Starship Enterprise, Energy Star equipment goes dormant every time you're interrupted by a phone call, doorbell, crying child or visit from a fellow employee. As with the screen saver, a touch of a key reanimates animates the equipment, returning you to exactly where you were prior to the period of hibernation.
Investing in an Energy Star PC, monitor and printer for your home might shave only $5 to $20 off your electricity bill annually. But economies of scale stretch the "negawatt" savings significantly. If each of the country's 18-million-plus home computer owners reduced their bills by $5, the yearly savings would be $90 million. In the business world, the payoffs would be larger still: Computer systems are believed to account for five percent of commercial energy consumption; reports show that the 30 to 35 million PCs used in the nation's businesses sit unused the vast majority of time they're on; and an estimated 30 to 40 percent of PCs are left running at night and on weekends.
By compensating with circuits that circumvent such sloth and wastage, the EPA's Brian Johnson estimates that the amount of energy saved could be 26 billion kilowatts by the year 2000. That translates into the amount of electricity presently used to power all of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for a year. And the Earth could be spared 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, plus 140,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 75,000 tons of nitrogen oxides. "I believe the Energy Star program is going to change the way desktop computers work for the better," says Bristol Stickney, a research associate for E Source in Boulder, Colorado, an off-shoot of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the energy thinktank which coined the "negawatt" concept 17 years ago.
All that's required to earn an Energy Star is the addition of some simple circuitry. Power-saving techniques are nothing new to computer manufacturers - they've always used them in laptop PCs to extend battery life to prolong the period portables operate on their own power. The EPA standards only ask that monitors and system units use no more than 30 watts while napping in order to wear the Energy Star label, while printers must power down to no more than 25 watts. The amount of power consumed while the typical PC/monitor duo is on at full force - 150 watts per hour - isn't addressed, so the total wattage used by the new products will vary considerably from unit to unit. A few computers met the Energy Star guidelines without any changes, while many others are slightly-revamped versions of already existing products. So the real breakthrough is in government and business collaboration, not technology. Merely by promising to sanction and promote the end result, the EPA inspired industry to transfer its tried-and-true power-saving technology to desktop computing equipment. The government spent little at its end, and gave no money to the cooperating companies.
Lest you be left with the wrong impression, let us hasten to add that you should not purchase a new PC simply to have a more energy-efficient model. Compulsive consumption is rarely energy-efficient: Continued consumer demand for faster and fancier systems is expected to send 150 million PCs to landfills by the year 2005, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University. The 300 million cubic feet of space they'll demand would cost up to $400 million at today's disposal costs, a figure that could easily rise to $1 billion by 2005, the study says. And no one even bothers to estimate how long it would take the computing equipment to degrade. Add to that the power and materials needed to create the 12.0 million computers U.S. consumers buy annually - a figure that may rise to 21.0 million by the year 2000 - and it's easy to see how the energy savings of a new Energy Star PC aren't worth the waste of disposing of an old one. Besides, you can achieve the Energy Star savings on existing equipment with three different add-on devices (see sidebar).
When you do dispose of an old PC, there are many groups and charities that would be thrilled to receive it, especially abroad. Recycling of old PC parts is also growing in popularity.
The First Green Computer
But in the world of the living, some manufacturers are going well beyond Energy Star in greening their PCs, notably Apple, Hewlett-Packard and, at the forefront, the IBM PC Company, an independently run business under Big Blue's umbrella that was founded in late 1992. This is especially encouraging since market researcher International Data Corporation named IBM as the top purveyors of PCs last year - by a landslide. However, because the IBM system's price places it out of the reach of many, you can also consider a number of other less expensive but also less innovative systems that still rank above the pack.
IBM's Personal System/2 E (PS/2 E) breaks ground in a number of ways. It's an anomaly in a world of conformity, all the more distinctive because of the company's conservative image. The PS/2 E's 10-pound, foot-square system box is much smaller than that of a typical PC - it's small enough to fit on a book-shelf - yet it houses a 50-megahertz processor, 4 megabytes of random access memory (RAM) and a 120-megabyte hard disk. ("Megahertz" measure speed of data processing, "megabytes" measure data storage capacity, and RAM is the space available to the computer for the present operation.) Though you can buy faster systems, this one will easily meet the needs of all but the most demanding users. Because the system has no internal fan, it's abnormally quiet for a PC. A mere 23 watts of power fuels even its most feverish bouts of calculations. That's less than what the EPA mandates Energy Star computers draw when they're idle. The plastic from which the system's snap-on case is fabricated has a 25 percent recycled content, and the design is geared toward further recycling at the end of its life cycle, with a minimum of the metal fasteners that impede recycling efforts.
The IBM system's monitor is equally futuristic: a color flat panel display that can hang on the wall in front of you or be propped up with a stand. It looks more like a magic mirror than a monitor. Lifted from IBM's portable line, this "active matrix" screen is considered one of the best in the industry for portables, but its resolution and brightness are less than what you might expect from a desktop. Like the system unit, the 38 watts of power the flat panel requires when operating at peak capacity is a fraction of what traditional monitors require. It also emits no VLF (very low frequency) and very of little of the ELF (extremely low frequency) radiation associated with many monitors, radiation, that some suspect - though none have proven - to be carcinogenic. The duo's $5,500 price tag is quite steep compared to the less energy-efficient computers, however.
IBM also offers seven more tradition monitors that can reduce the price of a PS/2 E system by more than half. Like the computer, these monitors have a partial recycled plastic content. The smallest of them is 14 inches in size, which is adequate for most uses; the cheapest of the two 14-inch offerings shrinks the system's street price to a much more affordable $2,500. They all meet the Energy Star standards. All the monitors in the line meet the demanding Swedish specs for VLF and ELF radiation,
The PS/2 E's petite components also have another advantage: Small is beautiful if you consider the cumulative energy costs of creating and destroying computers. A pencil-eraser-sized pointing device called the TrackPoint II is tucked between the keyboard's G and H keys and serves instead of a mouse. The joystick-like TrackPoint II lets users keep their hands on the keyboard, which itself is smaller than usual. The PS/2 E also has PCMCIA (an acronym for Personal Computer Memory Card Industry Association) slots that allow you to use credit-card-sized peripherals like modems, fax boards, and removable disk drives. These cards are hyped as being much simpler to install, but historically they've also been much more expensive. While a recent PC Magazine article hints that they're not yet living up to all their promise, their prices are dropping. One newly-introduced PCMCIA modem card costs a mere $220, which compares favorably to what you'd pay for one of their much larger conventional counterparts.
Packaging is an easy target for waste reduction, and IBM hasn't missed it. In addition to attempting to design the PS/2 E's shipping cartons so that they use as little corrugated paper (plain brown, rather than bleached white, of course) and polystyrene as possible, the company has begun reusing more bulk shipping materials like pallets and polystyrene foam.
The Toxic Truth
The lion's share of environmental debt created by a PC isn't in its energy consumpution but in the pollution left by its manufacturing. Clearly, IBM's PS/2 E is a laudable product, but it doesn't earn straight A's. Some of its semiconductor chips are made with new and environmentally-improved processes, but other electronic components are fabricated using time-honored, noxious-chemical-intensive methods that belie the industry's "clean" reputation.
The extreme toxicity of making computer parts is one of the reasons Silicon Valley, the region in central California where the majority of the companies that manufacture computer chips and boards are located, has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the U.S. for an area its size. According to Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxies Coalition, 28 of the area's 29 Superfund sites are associated with high technology electronics manufacture. And dozens more Superfund sites scattered throughout the country are tied to processes used to create electronic computer components. And those are just the largest messes - a recent report in the engineering journal Spectrum stated that 150 toxic leaks are being actively monitored in Silicon Valley alone.
Five of the Superfund sites are associated with Intel, the U.S.'s largest semiconductor manufacturer, whose processor chips are found in the vast majority of "IBM clone" computers. IBM is hardly above reproach, either. The company manufactures many of its own electronic components and has at least two Superfund sites, according to Smith. Other polluted IBM sites, such as the company's disk drive fabrication plant in San Jose, aren't on the Superfund list "for political reasons," even though their degree of contamination warrants it, Smith says.
People like Ted Smith and Greenpeace's Bill Walsh acknowledge that the semiconductor industry has been cleaning up its act - if not its historical messes - as of late, at least somewhat. "There has been some progress, but it's slow going at enormous environmental cost," says Smith. For example, the 1990 ban on the use of chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) spurred both the semiconductor and circuit board industries to implement pollution prevention and source reduction measures. Still, the industry fought the, legislation for years and made the changes only when forced into action. There are also many other potentially-dangerous chemicals used by the industry that have simply not yet been proven safe. A recent study definitively linked ethylene glycol ethers, solvents used by the industry for 20 years, with miscarriages. Now manufacturers are scrambling to find a substitute for them.
The best news about the semiconductor industry is that its government-sponsored research arm, Sematech, now has a mandate to investigate alternative, cleaner production technologies. In response to pressure from grassroots environmental groups, Congres voted to earmark 10 percent of Sematech's $100 million budget for forward-thinking, "green" research, stipulating that environmental groups must be consulted to ensure that the money is well-spent. The government is subsidizing the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation's (MCC) research into cleaning and greening up the "packaging" of how semiconductor chips are connected to the boards and to each other in order to create a functional system. So the manufacturing improvements should keep coming, assuming budget cuts don't fell these programs.
Disposing of computers, however, has received very little attention to date. As a nation, we're way behind the Europeans and the Japanese, especially the Germans who have drafted legislation requiring that any company selling computers there must accept old equipment for recycling. Apple, DEC, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and IBM are now building recycling factors into computer designs but, much more important, DEC, HP, and IBM also run facilities to actually collect old computers. At present the most marketable component of these computer carcasses is the metals that can be scavenged from them, according to Bailey Condrey of the American Plastics Council. But at least some recycled computer plastic has been reincarnated as "viryl" tiles for McDonald's roofs, he says, thanks to a joint project of DEC and General Electric. Beyond that, Condrey says, recycling of durable plastic goods like computer parts is in its infancy. The American Plastics Council is presently working with a Massachusetts firm called WTE to build a pilot recycling plant for durable products, including plastics from computers.
The Energy Star program certainly makes PCs more palatable; for the first time in years, it's politically correct to purchase a brand-new one. Still, in the end, even IBM's groundbreaking PS/2 E represents only a step in the right direction. Let's hope PC purveyors continue to follow the path now visible.
* Green Lights/Energy Star, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 401 M Street SW, 6202J, Washington DC 20460/(202)775-6650.
* The Green PC, by Steve Anzonvin, costs $9.95 in stores, or is available postpaid from: TAB Books, 13311 Monterey Avenue, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17294/(717)794-2191.
* The Silicon Vauey toxics Coalition, 760 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95112/ (408)287-6707.
* If you want to donate your old computers, cheek with local nonprofit groups, or contact these national programs: East-West Developnwnt Foundaton, 49 Temple Place, Boston, MA 02111/(617)542-1234; Educational Assistance Limited, P.O. Box 3021, Glen Ellyn, IL 60138/ (709)690-0010; National Christina Foundation, 42 Hillcrest Drive, Pelham Manor, NY 10803/(800)274-7846.
A Few Energy Stars
The galaxy of Energy Stars is filled with many bright offerings. You can contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a complete list of companies offering Energy Star products, but here are some of the highlights.
Apple's Macintosh Color Classic Configuration: 16 megahertz (MHz) 68030 processor; 4 megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM); 80 MB hard disk; built-in monitor. Price: $1389 Environmental Attributes Beyond Energy Star: recycled packaging; plastic parts coded for recycling; no CFCs used in manufacturing; batteries can be returned to Apple.
Austin Computer System's Green PC 486SX/33 Configuration: 486SX-33 processor, 4MB of RAM; 250MB hard drive; 14-inch monitor. Price: $1529 Environmental Attributes Beyond Energy Star: recycled packaging; system takes power reductions significantly below EPA guidelines.
Gateway 2000's 4SX-33 Configuration: 486SX-33 processor; 4MB of RAM; 212MB hard drive; 14-inch monitor. Price: $1295 Environmental Attributes Beyond Energy Star: recycled packaging; company demands that all parts be CFC-free; corporation supports Global Releaf.
Hewlett-Packard's Vectra 486/33XM Configuration: 33MHz 80486 processor, 8MB of RAM; 170MB hard drive; 14-inch monitor. Price:$2489 Environmental Attributes Beyond Energy Star: recycled packaging; product designed for easy recycling.
IBM's Personal System 2/E Configuration: 50MHz processor, 8MB of RAM, 120MB hard disk, 10.4 inch screen Price: $5,500 Environmental Attributes Beyond Energy Star: uses significantly less power than any other desktop PC; case has 25 percent recycled plastic; reduced packaging.
You can make your present PC more energy-efficient by adding a retrofit that automatically powers down your monitor. The $69.95 Green Keeper form B&B Electronics (Ottawa, IL) is a hardware and software device you plug your monitor into. The $79.95 Monitor Miser from Technology Marketing Partners (San Francisco, CA) does the same thing when plugged into your keyboard. Berkeley Systems (Berkeley, CA), the makers of the popular screen saver, After Dark, has announced that they're developing a software-only product that will do much the same thing.
Lasers are the only printers on which you'll find Energy Star stickers - which is not quite fair, because all ink jet and ribbon printers draw less than 25 watts of power when they're not actively printing. Almost all printers are designed to use as little power as possible when they're sitting idle - seeing as how that's the vast majority of the time - so some of the laser printers even met the specification without modification. Some of the more green laser printer features to look for include the ability to print drafts using half the toner required for letter-quality text and manufacturer's willingness to accept spent toner cartridges (both Apple and Hewlett-Packard do).
Random Reasons That Compute
Why do environmentalists desire computers, rely on computers, stare into the glare of their screens until they see spots? The answer is in the software. Here's our list of what to check out:
Logging On. Nearly 100 magazines, including Consumer Reports, The New Republic and Time are available online. James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly says he daily exchanges dozens of messages with readers who log on through services like CompuServe or Prodigy. You can also join an electronic salon to discuss the days pressing issues through Utne Reader magazine. Contact: CompuServe, P.O. Box L-477, Columbus, OH 43260/(800)848-8199.
Greening Your House. The Green Explorer is the electronic equivalent of Heloise's Hints, walking users through a typical house to unveil the environment impact of various household items. Contact: MicroBase, Inc., 3923 South McClintock, Tempe, AZ 85282/ (602), 897-7800.
Killing Time. Chevron's executive gameplayers were so impressed with SimCity that they commissioned Maxis Software to write a business aid called SimRefinery for them. That's not available to the public, but simulation software fans can play the role of city planner with ancient city, future city and "2000" versions of the popular SimCity program. Or try your hand at similar titles like, Maxis' new SimFarm, Save the Planet's educationally-oriented software, Sierra On-line's EcoQuest and Tanager's C.Y.P.H.E.R. Operation Wildlife. Contact: Maxis Software, 2 Theatre Square, Suite 230, Orinda, CA 94563/ (800)336-2947; Save the Planet Software, P.O. Box 45, Pitkin, CO 81241/ (303)641-5035; Sierra On-line, P.O. Box 485, Coarsegold, CA 93614/(209)683-4468; Tanager Software Productions, 1933 Davis St., Suite 208, San Leandro, CA 94577/(510)430-0900.
Hiking the Trail. Or at least decide which ones look most worth the effort by checking out slide shows and weather information through National Parks of America, available on CD ROM - those new mega-capacity, highly interactive program disks, compatible only with more advanced computers. Contact: Multicom Publishing, 1100 Olive Way, Suite 1250, Seattle, WA 98101/ (800)850-7272.
Surfing the Internet. The much-touted data highway to all manner of arcane academic, governmental and industry information - including E Magazine - has become far easier to travel thanks to a new and free shareware product called Mosaic. It's available through the, Internet to those with a direct connection to it.
Testing the Waters. EnviroMac works with a Macintosh and sensors to capture environmental data like temperature. air quality and energy use. Contact: Remote Measurewnt Systems, Inc., 2633 Eastlake Avenue East, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98102/(206)328-2255.
Love Letters to Washington. Changewater Letters and Federal Soapbox simplify the process of sharing your views with the honorables - Changewater also lists the addresses of key CEOs like the head cheese at Weyerhauser Paper. Contact: Changewater Computing, P.O, Box 4468, Warren, NJ 07059/(800)497-9799; Soapbox Software, 10 Golden Gate Drive, San Rafael, CA 94901/(800)989-7627.